Shortlines, Where Customer Service Is Key!

Short lines, whose designation by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) is a Class III carrier (terminal and switching lines are also included under the Class III status), by far make up the bulk of railroads across the country today.  According to the STB, as of 2013 a short line is defined as any railroad earning less than $37.4 million in annual operating revenue (total revenue). Class III's may be the smallest systems within the industry, in both terms of mileage (some are as short as 1 mile or less, such as the Little Kanawha Railroad located in Parkersburg, West Virginia, while others are more than 100 miles in length like the Arkansas & Missouri) and revenue, but they usually offer the most interesting and diverse operations.  As a group short lines comprise nearly double the annual revenue, mileage, and employees than Class II, regionals.  In addition, many are now operate as part of a large conglomerate such as Genesee & Wyoming, Watco, and OmniTRAX.

Many short lines you find in service today hearken back to days of old when railroading was a far more interesting industry offering a multitude of different model types to see (steam or diesel), local trains serving numerous industries, and servicing local customers.  Once upon a time this sort of thing was quite common when most companies, large and small, depended upon a short siding or local depot to receive their goods/products.  For instance, if you have an interest in classic diesels they abound on these railroads . Anything from little switchers like General Electric (GE) 44-tonners and American Locomotive Company (Alco) S-1's, built in the 1930s and 1940s, to General Motors’ Electro-Motive (EMD) line of GP7s (GP models are commonly known as “Geeps” by railroaders and railfans but specifically stood for "General Purpose") and SD9s (built later in the 1950s, the SD referred to "Special Duty"). All of these, plus many other types and from many other long-gone manufacturers, can still be found on these little lines racking up the mileage.   

Short Lines By Region


Arcade & Attica 

Beech Mountain Railroad 

Elk River Railroad 

Grafton & Upton 

Little Kanawha River Railroad 

Livonia, Avon & Lakeville 

South Branch Valley 

West Virginia Central 

Morristown & Erie 

Middletown & Hummelstown 

New Hope & Ivyland 

Winchester & Western 


Aberdeen & Rockfish 

Aberdeen, Carolina & Western 

Apalachicola Northern 

Atlanta & St. Andrews Bay 

Columbus & Greenville 

De Queen & Eastern 

South Carolina Central 

Georgia Northeastern 

Georgia Southwestern 

Pickens Railway 

Chesapeake & Albermarle 

Lancaster & Chester 

Louisiana & North West 

Pinsly Company 

Sandersville Railroad 

St. Marys Railroad 

Meridian & Bigbee 


Ann Arbor Railroad 

Arkansas & Missouri 

Belt Railway of Chicago 

Cedar Rapids & Iowa City 

Chicago, SouthShore & South Bend 

Escanaba & Lake Superior 

Indiana Harbor Belt 

Iowa Traction 

Lake Superior & Ishpeming 

RJ Corman Railroad Group 

Indiana & Ohio 

Ohio Central 

Alton & Southern 

Iowa Northern 

Toledo, Peoria & Western 

Illinois & Midland 

Sand Springs Railway 

Tulsa-Sapulpa Union 

Terminal Railroad Association Of St. Louis 


Black Mesa & Lake Powell 

Arizona & California 

Fort Worth & Western 

Apache Railway 

Dallas, Garland & Northeastern 


Copper Basin Railway 

Pecos Valley Southern Railway 

Trona Railway 

Modesto & Empire Traction 


Butte, Anaconda & Pacific 

Port of Tillamook Bay 

Idaho, Northern & Pacific 

St. Maries River Railroad 

Utah Railway 

Eastern Idaho Railroad 

Red River Valley & Western 

Twin Cities & Western 

Defunct Lines

Ashley, Drew & Northern 

Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad

Camas Prairie Railroad 

Chesapeake Western Railway 

Copper Range Railroad 

Durham & Southern 

East Tennessee & Western North Carolina, "The Tweetsie" 

Erie Western Railway 

Frankfort & Cincinnati 

Lake Erie, Franklin & Clarion 

Magma Arizona 

McCloud River Railroad 

Montour Railroad 

North Louisiana & Gulf 

Pittsburg & Shawmut 

Quanah, Acme & Pacific, "The Quanah Route" 

Rahway Valley 

Reader Railroad 

Roscoe, Snyder & Pacific 

St. Johnsbury & Lamoille County 

Texas-Mexican Railway 

Toronto, Hamilton & Buffalo 

Virginia Blue Ridge Railway 

Wellsville, Addison & Galeton 

West Virginia Northern 

For more information about individual shortline systems, as well as some notable defunct operations, please check out the links below.  You can also find out more about most Class III systems by visiting this state-by-state guide.

In some cases, a short line actually prefers a particular antiquated model type or manufacturer's build due to their power or ease of maintenance.  Take, for example, the Livonia, Avon & Lakeville in New York which rosters an all-Alco fleet of road-switchers (C425's, C424's, RS3's, RS36's, etc.) or the SMS Rail Lines revered by railfans for its roster of rare Baldwin units such the VO-660, VO-1000, DS-4-4-660, DS-4-4-1000, DS-4-4-750, S12, and AS616.  What Class III's lack in size they more than make up for in customer service, a trait for which they are best known.  Depending upon its size, a particular railroad may literally live or die by sometimes only a few precious carloads garnered annually; they simply cannot afford to give up a customer or two to make their bottom-line numbers look better (as is sometimes the case with their much large cousins, Class Is). Some are even in operation because of only one customer they serve, and if that customer happens to leave for whatever reason then the railroad must either close down or enter a dormant state while waiting for a new customer(s) to appear. 

A good example of this would be the Elk River Railroad in Gassaway, West Virginia which was originally created in 1989 to haul coal from a new mine that had recently opened but after it closed ten years later in 1999, the railroad has sat basically dormant since that time and today occasionally handles car-repair work and car storage (other railroads looking for new customers also eek out a meager existence in this manner). Of course, on the other end of the spectrum are large shortlines that operate several hundred miles of track and are nearly Class IIs. These include names like RJ Corman, Iowa Northern Railway, Livonia, Avon & Lakeville, and others. For historical sake there also those companies which have been in operation for more than 100 years such as the Indiana Harbor Belt, St. Marys Railroad, Ann Arbor, and others. The bottom line is that you can find Class IIIs of all shapes and sizes around the country. 

This grittiness in the face of adversity is another reason these railroads have a uniqueness that is all their own and sometimes their very being keeps a rail line from abandonment, not to mention the help they provide their local economy (far too often rail lines are abandoned and left for dead when they could still be serving a purpose and helping the economy in which they are located). Even today, new Class III railroads continue to spring up like the once-dormant, historic Grafton & Upton Railroad in Massachusetts which has sprung to life and the new owner has a vast array of new plans for the company. Of course, not all are privately owned as you may think. Just like the classic, fallen flag lines many are being gobbled up by large conglomerates such as Anacostia & Pacific, Genesee & Wyoming, Gulf & Ohio Railways, Iowa Pacific, OmniTRAX, Patriot Rail, Pinsly, Pioneer RailCorp, Rio Grande Pacific, RJ Corman, and Watco.

While these lines continue to keep their names, liveries and management is replaced by the new owners. Also, while the short line phenomenon is a relatively new trend only 30 years old or so, at least in the sense that it has become quite popular with the large Class Is selling off hundreds of miles of secondary lines there are historic companies that no longer operate. These include names like the Maryland & Pennsylvania ("Ma & Pa"), Virginia & Truckee, and others.  According to the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) October, 2014 report entitled, "Summary Of Class II and Class III Railroad Capital Needs And Funding Sources" there are currently 546 short lines in service across the country operating 32,858 miles of trackage with a workforce of 12,293.  As of 2013 their annual revenue as a group was $2.6 billion.  Lastly, for more information on a number of the Class IIIs which operate throughout the country please click on their appropriate link listed above. 

So, if you get the chance and know of a local system in your area be sure and see it in action if the opportunity presents itself (many only operate on certain days of the week). While watching a Class I container train moving at 60+ mph across the Heartland is always thrilling, nothing can likewise beat observing a local line switching its customer(s) and moving those cars between there, the interchange point (where smaller roads swap loaded and empty cars with the big Class Is), and back again. If you want to see the human side of railroading, no one does it better than these small lines. To learn more about them please click here to visit the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association's (ASLRRA) website. This member organization is similar in nature to the Association of American Railroads but geared towards smaller, non-Class I carriers. 

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